Friday 15 December 2017

Shortage of troops takes toll on Assad

President Bashar al-Assad
President Bashar al-Assad

Nabih Bulos Beirut

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday admitted his regime had been forced to give up territory in the country's civil war as his army suffers a shortage of manpower.

In a remarkably frank assessment of the strains afflicting the Syrian military after more than four years of conflict, Mr Assad said the army could not fight everywhere for risk of losing ground.

"If we thought we will be victorious in all the battles everywhere at the same time... this is unrealistic and impossible," he said. "We are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold on to."

Mr Assad has lost a series of battles in recent months. In May, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) easily took Palmyra, while a loose coalition of Islamist forces pushed pro-government troops out of the north-eastern province of Idlib.

The Syrian government's territorial control stands at no more than 25pc of the country, with the rest divided among armed groups including Isil, other rebel groups and a well-organised Kurdish militia. However, the state-held area is home to the majority of the population.

Mr Assad acknowledged the setbacks, but insisted "we are in a fateful phase with no half-solutions".

"Are the Syrian armed forces able... to defend the homeland? Yes, it is certainly capable," said Mr Assad in a speech to local dignitaries televised from the capital, Damascus.

"But the army in the first degree is a matter of manpower which would then utilise the weapons and ammunition. Everything is available but there is a lack of manpower."

He also acknowledged the role of non-Syrian fighters supporting his government's fight against rebels.

"[Our sister nation] Iran only gave us military expertise, and as for our loyal brothers in the Lebanese resistance they fought with us... their blood combined with the blood of their brethren in the army and the armed forces," said Mr Assad, referring to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah.

Hizbollah has been instrumental in securing strategic areas near the Syrian-Lebanese border, over-running towns that were rebel strongholds and preventing rebels from escaping into Lebanon.

Iran has dispatched elite members of its Revolutionary Guard to act as military advisers to pro-government forces in Syria. In addition, it regularly sends irregular forces from Iraq and Afghanistan's Shia population to fight the opposition.

Mr Assad hinted at the expanded influence such groups will exercise in Syria, saying: "The homeland is not for those who live in it and who carry its passport or citizenship… but is for those who defend it and protect it".

Irish Independent

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